A plot hole in Heavy Rain due to a MacGuffin. But what's a MacGuffin ?

Publié le par Heavy Rain - blog

img003-1056 Many players have noticed a few mysteries in Heavy Rain's story, sometimes considered as plot holes. The most obvious of these is an Origami in Ethan Mars' hand after his schizophrenia sequences. In a recent interview with joystiq.com, he talks about it :


(Vous pouvez consulter l'article en français en cliquant ici)


"Actually, no [he can't explain it], because this is what Hitchcock calls a MacGuffin. He said a very interesting rule is that you can only have one MacGuffin in a story. A MacGuffin is something that is not explained. And one is okay -- if you have three, then that story doesn't make any sense. But if you have something where you leave the audience space to, you know, try to understand and make up their own answers for that, that's fine. And I thought that worked in the context of Heavy Rain, not to explain but have people figure it out."


Okay, David. But what's a MacGuffin ? The french website hitchcock.alienor.fr explains it. It is a fundamental idea in Hitchcock vision of the cinema. Its origin is told by Hitchcock himself :


"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.


One man says :

- 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?

- Oh that's a McGuffin.

- What's a McGuffin?

- Well It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Higlands

- But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands

- Well, then that's no McGuffin!'.


So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all."

Hitchcock often told this story to mock those who wanted a rational explanation and a perfect consistency in his movies. His goal was to twist the spectator and to try to make him as scared as the character in the movie.


In Hitchcock's movies, the MacGuffin is a part of the story used to initalize or justify the scenario, but is finally not so important for the rest of the movie.


In Psycho, for example, the MacGuffin is the money that Marion steals to her boss at the very start of the movie : it launches the story but is easily forgotten.


In North By Northwest, Hitchcock said : "In this movie, I've reduced the MacGuffin to its minimum. When Cary Grant asks the CIA Agent about the bad James Mason : 'What is that man doing ? Oh, let's consider he's in import-export of State secrets'. And that's all we have to say. Every spy story should have its MacGuffin, whether it's a microfilm a any object hidden into the heel of a stiletto".


 Wikipedia defines a MacGuffin as follows :


A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction".  

Sometimes, the specific nature of the MacGuffin is not important to the plot such that anything that serves as a motivation serves its purpose. The MacGuffin can sometimes be ambiguous, completely undefined, generic or left open to interpretation.

The MacGuffin is common in films, especially thrillers. Commonly, though not always, the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and later declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. Sometimes the MacGuffin is even forgotten by the end of the film.


According the Oxford English Dictionnary (OED), Hitchock defined the MacGuffin during a conference in 1939, at Columbia University : ""[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers".


Hitchcock uses the MacGuffin in most of his movies : secret formulas in The 39 Steps, uranium in bottles of wine in Notorious, stolen money in Psycho and Marnie, the couple of birds in The Birds, jewels in To Catch A Thief. To Hitchcock himself, his best MacGuffin was found in North By Northwest because the "government secrets" don't even exist as a document. They remain a mere abstraction.

François Truffaut was a great admirer of Hitchcock. His first interview with Hitchock was in 1955. At the beginning of the 60's, he's having more and more interviews with him and finally publishes a book in 1966 : "Cinema according to Hitchcock" with Helen Scott.


On his website, the illustrator  Jean-Claude Claeys has published a conversation between Hitchcock and Truffaut about the MacGuffin :


- Alfred Hitchock : We have to talk about the MacGuffin !


- François Truffaut : The MacGuffin is the excuse, right ?


- A.H. : It's a trick, we call this a 'gimmick'. So, here's the whole story about it : You know that Kipling often wrote about India and British fighting against the natives on the border of Afghanistan. In most of the spy books written in this atmosphere, it was invariably stealing the plans of a fortress. That was the MacGuffin.

MacGuffin is the name we give to these kind of actions, like stealing papers, documents, secrets... It is nothing important and people shouldn't try to find the truth in the MacGuffin. In my own work, I've always thought that "papers", or "documents" or "secrets" about the fortress are extremely important for the characters, but not for me the narrator.


- F.T. : That's very interesting !


- A.H. There's a strange phenomenon every time I work for the first time with a scriptwriter. He mainly focuses on the MacGuffin, and I have to explain that it is finally not so important. Let's take a look at The 39 Steps : What are the spies looking for ? The man who's missing a finger ? The woman at the beginning, what is she looking for ? Did she get so close to a big secret that she had to be stabbed in the back in someone else's flat ?

When we built the story of The 39 Steps, we thought - obviously we were wrong - that we needed an excuse as it was a story about life and death. At this time, we thought the MacGuffin had to be huge. But the further we went into the story, the simple had to be the MacGuffin.


F.T. :  Could we consider that the MacGuffin doesn't need to be serious, and even deserves to be derisory like the small song in The Lady Vanishes ?


A.H. : Definately. Finally, the MacGuffin in The 39 Steps is a mathematical formula related to the construction of an aircraft engine, but this formula didn't even exist on a paper as the spies used Mister Memory's brain to move that secret during a music-hall tour.


F.T. : In some movies, the MacGuffin is explained at the very end of the story and the spectators sometimes laugh, wisthle or criticize it. But one of your tips is to explain it at the end of the two thirds thrid quarter of your movies, so that you can avoid a concrete explanation ?


A.H. : You're right, but what I learned from the past years is the MacGuffin is nothing. I am convinced, but it is hard to persuade the others !

My best MacGuffin (and by best I mean the emptiest, the most non-existant and ridiculous) is the one in North By Northwest. It's a spy movie and the only question of the scenario is : "What are these spies seeking ?". Now, during the scene on the Chicago airfield, the man from the C.I.A. explains everything to Cary Grant about James Mason :

- What is that man doing ?

- Let's consider he's in import-export of State secrets.

- But what does he sell ?

- Oh... Just secrets related to governments.

The MacGuffin is reduced to its purest form : nothing.


F.T. : Nothing concrete, as this clearly proves you are very aware of what you do and you perfectly dominate your work. These kind of movies led some critics like : "Hitchcock has nothing to say". But I guess the only answer should be : "A film maker has nothing to say, it has to show".


A.H. : Exactly !



Publié dans Infos

Commenter cet article

XZS 06/04/2010 14:09

Pretty sweet article, sir.

Yeah, that's it, I follow the fashion and write a comment in english, to suit with this article!
World, here we come! :D

Plus sérieusement, c'est une bonne initiative (et pas mal de boulot en vu, pour traduire chaque article) de s'adapter au language universel d'internet, alias l'Anglais.